Reflections on doing an invited keynote

Donald Nicolson has worked in academic research since 2001 and is still an independent scholar, much to the chagrin of himself and his family.

In July 2018, he gave an invited keynote address to the Association for Borderland Studies conference in Vienna, from which this piece arose.

His first book ‘Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities’ was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Some people think it is not bad.

He can be approached on Twitter @the_mopster.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao | unsplash.com

Photo by Nathan Dumlao | unsplash.com

“We would like to wholeheartedly invite you to give the introductory keynote speech at our conference,” said the message on Research Gate.

“Oh yeah,” I thought, “Another scam conference invitation!”

But one that was not scheduled for Las Vegas or Bangkok. Working from the cautious maxim that I should not be so cynical, I decided to do some investigating, just in case. A one-hour Skype call with the Conference Chair convinced me that she and the conference were both real.

This was not a case of too good to be true. Very quickly, I had gone from cynicism, to shock, to pride, to excitement at being invited.

One year on from this invite, with said keynote done in July 2018, I am in a better space to be able to reflect on this. I learned a few things, and am sharing them here!  Read more of this post

The ethics of conference speakers

Helen KaraDr Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999 and writes and teaches on research methods.

She is the author of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide (Policy Press, 2015). She is not, and never has been, an academic, though she has learned to speak the language.

In 2015, Helen was the first fully independent researcher to be conferred as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods. Her latest book is Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives (Policy Press, 2018).

Helen’s webiste is helenkara.com and she tweets at @DrHelenKara. Her ORCID is 0000-0001-7348-0963


Photo by Luke Michael | unsplash.com

Photo by Luke Michael | unsplash.com

In March 2018 Stanford University in California held a two-day conference in applied history. There were 30 speakers. Every single one was male and white.

Like most academic fields, applied history is dominated by white men. However, there are also many women and people of colour who work and study within the discipline. No doubt there are also queer historians and historians with disabilities. To be fair to Stanford, three female historians had been invited to take part in the conference, but each of them declined due to previous commitments. To be fair to women, I’m sure that more than 10% of historians are female. Stanford inadvertently made history itself by ending up with the biggest manel ever. (For those who haven’t heard the term before, a manel is a panel comprised entirely of men.)

Of course the media, as usual, reported this event as though gender is binary. While there is some point in prioritising women, who still face structural discrimination in professional life, this also risks further marginalising trans and non-binary people. Their voices are equally important, as are those of people from different sexual orientations, belief systems, and so on. Read more of this post

How important is it to present at conferences early in one’s career? (Part 2)

Way back when, Julie Gold asked: “How important is it, really, to present papers early in one’s career?” (Research Whisperer’s Facebook page, 3 Feb 2018).

This post is part 2 of the answers received for Julie Gold’s question. If you missed it, here’s part 1!

I must admit my initial response was based around a preference for breaking down the dependence on conferences as THE place to share findings or research ideas. This was, in part, because of the assumptions about researcher mobility and material support that this entails.

However, on reading my trusted colleagues’ views and reflecting on the dynamics of academia more generally, I’ve shifted my opinions.

This post features responses from Kylie ‘Happy Academic’ Ball, Kerstin ‘Postdoc Training’ Fritsches, and urban archeologist Sarah Hayes.

Read more of this post

How important is it to present at conferences early in one’s career? (Part 1)

Way back when, Julie Gold asked: “How important is it, really, to present papers early in one’s career?” (Research Whisperer’s Facebook page, 3 Feb 2018).

I took Julie’s question to be about presenting at conferences and my short, immediate answer (in my head) after I saw it was this:

“Even though many things have changed in academia, and I’d argue that most people could do with less conference-ing (rather than more), though getting the word out about your work early in your career is very important and sustained networking even more so.

There are many ways to do this, though, that don’t HAVE to be conferences – it’s just that conferences still retain a standard allure for academia that will take a longer time to shift…”

Then I stopped and thought a bit more about what I was saying. I realised how narrow my own experiences were (humanities, based in Australia, relatively recent social media zealot) in the broader pool of academic conference lore.

In addition, I’m speaking from a ‘mid-career’ position in the system, with established networks and an established track-record of conference presentation and attendance.

So, I approached a wider circle of Research Whisperer colleagues from various disciplines, perspectives and career stages. They were brilliant! They responded with thoughtful, useful advice and fascinating sharing of their experiences.

In fact, their responses were too good (and, therefore, hard to slice down) so this planned single post has become a 2-parter!

Here’s part one, featuring Inger ‘Thesis Whisperer’ Mewburn, Dani Barrington, Euan Ritchie, and Eva Alisic. Read more of this post

Staying still

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 7 December 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Wu Yi | unsplash.com

Photo by Wu Yi | unsplash.com

For as long as I’ve been in academia, one of the staples of scholarly life has been attending conferences. It’s traditionally how you cut your teeth as a researcher, test your ideas among peers and build those all-important networks for your career. Conferences are often held on fabulous sites in wonderful cities.

But there seems to be a turning of the tide when it comes to thinking about academic travel and conference mobility. Today, there’s a lot written about how conferences can be a waste of time and how they could be improved or shaken up to provide more value.

The imperative remains, however, that you must go to conferences.

But what if you don’t? Read more of this post

Calling time on conferences

Portrait of Dani BarringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Lecturer in Water, Sanitation and Health at University of Leeds and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland

Dani works in the field of water, sanitation and health in developed and developing communities. She is passionate about working at the nexus of technology and society, particularly investigating how appropriate technologies, community-led programs and public policy can improve health and well-being outcomes.

She tweets at @Dani_BarringtonYou can read Dani’s other Research Whisperer posts here.


I love attending conferences. Not because of the exotic locations, but because of the amazing conversations.

Who has time for sightseeing when there’s so much networking to be done? I meet new people, continue discussions with existing colleagues, and get fired up about what’s going on in my field and how my latest research idea might fit in.

Recently, there have been articles about how prohibitively expensive conferences are, particularly for early career researchers (ECRs).

Photo by Mikael Kristenson | unsplash.com

Photo by Mikael Kristenson | unsplash.com

In some cases, these articles call for a scrapping  of the traditional model in favour of cheaper and more inclusive events, such as webinars. This worries me. Although I definitely agree with them on some issues, I feel like some of these “calls to arms” are missing the point of conferences and what I think makes them a useful expense.

Then I realised that, in most cases, the way that conferences are designed misses the point…

Read more of this post

A manifesto for better academic presentations

Dr Jonathan Downie is a practising conference interpreter with a PhD in stakeholder expectations of interpreters from Heriot-Watt University (2016).

His first book, Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, was published by Routledge in 2016.

He is also a columnist on research issues for two industry magazines and is a regular speaker on the academic and translation & interpreting conference circuits.

He tweets at @jonathanddownie (personal / academic) and @integlangsbiz (interpreting / business). His ORCID is 0000-0003-0766-4056


Academic presentations are broken!

Admit it – the average academic talk is a cure for insomnia. It goes a bit like this:

  • Speaker clears their throat and begins in a hoarse whisper by reading their name and presentation title from the screen, despite the fact that those words are shown on the screen in font size 36!
  • Next comes the pointless “contents” slide. It still amazes me that when people have only 15 minutes to summarise the work that has taken four years of their life, they feel obligated to spend a quarter of that time explaining that their introduction will be followed by a literature review.
  • By the time we get to the meat of the presentation, the presenter has run out of steam. The part of the presentation that should have the biggest impact – what they did, why they did it and what they found – gets forgotten about or rushed as the speaker realises that their time has run out.

Read more of this post